At first glance, it looks like any other child care center. In the gymnasium, a dozen kids are shrieking as they play tug of war with a staff member. There’s an art room where children are painting pictures and a computer lab where a handful of boys are immersed in Minecraft.
But this is Bed Stuy’s Children of Promise, and there’s one thing which sets it apart from other after-school programs: Every one of these kids has a parent in prison.
CPNYC President Sharon Content founded the organization in 2009, after working in traditional after-school programming and seeing firsthand how children with a parent in prison weren’t getting the help they needed.
“Whenever I was approached by a family that was dealing with incarceration, I didn’t have a referral,” she said. “I didn’t have anywhere to send this particular child.”
Content wanted to help these children and disrupt the cycle of intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system. She chose Bed-Stuy as the organization’s home, due to the neighborhood’s high incarceration rate.
CPNYC is the first child care program in the nation devoted entirely to children with incarcerated parents. It’s also the only child care facility in NYC which doubles as a licensed mental health clinic; the kids take art therapy classes, participate in group therapy and regularly meet with a mental health clinician one-on-one.
Without this strong emphasis on mental healthcare, the other program features, like art, sports and tutoring, wouldn’t do much good, Content said.
“We could be the best SAT-prep program, the best basketball, soccer or chess program. But unless we really deal with those issues — the anger, the loss, the anxiety, the depression — you’re not allowing this young person to develop to his or her full potential,” she said.
In addition to therapy, children over eight can be paired with a mentor, a volunteer from the community, who is matched with the child based on common interests. Mentors get to know their mentees, offer them guidance, help them set goals and take them on outings around the city.
Though the program is free, identifying the children who need the service isn’t always easy. Due to the stigma of having a parent in prison, school administrators are often unaware when a child is dealing with this particular trauma. For that reason, Content spends a lot of time visiting schools to reach affected families and making trips to prisons to spread the word to incarcerated parents.
Currently, 196 children from all over Brooklyn are enrolled in CPNYC. Over 1,500 children ages six to 18 have passed through the program since its inception.
In the future, Content hopes to open more CPNYC locations with the same therapeutic model. She recently finalized plans for a new location in the South Bronx and hopes to open another facility in Brownsville by 2020.
“The mission of the organization was always to expand, not only in NYC but across the United States, into other communities that are highly impacted by incarceration,” Content said.